Denver could become the first city in the United States to offer supervised injection sites for heroin addicts and other illegal drug users — but not if the federal government has its way.
Colorado’s U.S. Attorney and Denver’s Drug Enforcement Administration field office warned the city on Tuesday that setting up places for addicts to shoot heroin and other drugs is illegal under a federal law that “prohibits the maintaining of any premises for the purpose of using any controlled substance.”
The punishment for knowingly breaking that law? Up to 20 years behind bars and fines as high as $250,000, among other penalties, federal officials said. The U.S. Attorney and DEA warned that Denver’s proposal would likely run afoul other federal laws as well.
Last week, Denver’s city council voted to open a two-year pilot supervised injection site in the city. That would provide a lawful place for addicts to use heroin as staff — armed with medicine to reverse potentially fatal overdoses — watch over the drug users, the Colorado Sun reported. The sites provide users with clean needles and testing strips to check for potentially-deadly fentanyl in the drugs.
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“There is a national health crisis in front of us and cities are on the front line,” said Councilman Albus Brooks, moments before his proposal passed in a 12-to-1 vote, according to the Sun. “Tonight we act to save lives and repair families.”
Before such a site can open, the city needs state legislators to get on board — and if state legislators do approve the plan, Denver would be the first city in the country to open such a site, the Denver Post reported. The intent is for no public funds to be used at the site, according to the city council.
Across the U.S., other cities have toyed with opening supervised injection sites, including Seattle, New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco, The Associated Press reported.
Many cities have faced setbacks: In September, California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a San Francisco pilot program that had been approved by state lawmakers — scuttling it before it got off the ground, AP reported. And in April, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein warned in a New York Times op-ed that cities opening supervised injection sites risk “swift and aggressive action” from the Justice Department.
Those hoping to open supervised injection sites in the U.S. point to roughly 100 sites in European and Australian cities, and in Canadian cities as close to the U.S. as Vancouver, according to AP. Advocates have argued that no one has overdosed at those facilities.
But federal officials questioned if the Vancouver experience has actually been a success.
The U.S. Attorney’s office said that “a recent review of one facility in Vancouver found that the overdose death rate in the immediate vicinity of the facility was actually the highest in the city.”
Federal officials also warned that “just like so-called crack houses, these facilities will attract drug dealers, sexual predators, and other criminals, ultimately destroying the surrounding community.”
Federal officials acknowledged that Denver’s goal of cutting addiction and drug use is laudable.
“But these efforts must comply with federal law,” the officials said.
Local leaders said they are pressing forward with the plan.
“While we recognize the role of the federal government, we cannot wait for federal action while the death toll rises,” Councilman Brooks said in statement responding to federal officials, according to the Post. “These people are not simply addicts. They are our neighbors, friends, and family members who are experiencing addiction.”